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Film & TV Personalities in the Hamptons

IN HIS ELEMENT Filmmaker Taylor Steele on location in Portland in 2015


Calling the Shots

By Jamie Bufalino and Alison Powell

Steele photo by Scott Sporleder; Lawrence and Guiliani photos by Ryan Moore


Whether it’s a world-class surf film director, the brainchild behind some of television’s punchiest hit series, or the board members helping guide the Hamptons International Film Festival, many of the most respected, dynamic entertainment professionals call the South Fork home.

Surf alert: An exotic specimen has been spotted along the shores of Montauk. After spending the past 12 years in the far more temperate climes of Bali and then Australia, 44-year-old Taylor Steele has recently migrated to the East End. What makes Steele exotic is his position atop the food chain of surf filmmakers. Growing up in Encinitas, Calif., Steele quickly adapted his natural creative abilities to his beach town surroundings. “I started surfing at 10,” he says. “My parents had bought a video camera for us to film Christmases and other family events. I took it down to the beach, set up a tripod, and I would grab two other friends and we’d take turns filming and surfing. Then at the end of the day I’d go home and I’d make a video for everybody to watch.”

Eventually, the childhood hobby morphed into a full-fledged career. In 1992, at age 19, Steele—who had become friends with talented young surfers like Kelly Slater—decided he wanted to put his own signature on the surf film genre. “At the time, there were some really beautiful surf movies, but they were all shot on 16 millimeter film in slo-mo with mellow music,” recalls Steele. “And me, being just 19, I didn’t have the attention span for that. I was watching MTV and I wanted to make something more fast-paced.”

Steele decided to make a virtue of his low-tech camera, opting for a minimalist, cinéma vérité-style approach, allowing the surfers’ performances—rather than fancy filmmaking techniques—to be the star of the show. He also amped up the surfers’ wave-thrashing action by tacking on a pop-punk soundtrack, featuring then-unknown bands like Blink-182. The finished product—a 35-minute VHS film titled Momentum, which Steele personally delivered to surf shops in his pick-up truck—became a hit in the surfing community. “It was so different from what was out there,” he says. “Plus, I was filming a group of surfers who weren’t famous yet, but when I was filming them, they became the top guys. Kelly Slater won the world title when I was doing Momentum.”

Steele has been making popular surf films pretty much nonstop ever since. Along the way, he started a family with his wife, Sybil, who’s a fashion photographer and a film producer. The couple have two daughters: Jaiden, 11, and Milla, 10. After living in Bali and Byron Bay, Australia, the peripatetic clan moved full time to Montauk last September. “Each move we’ve made was intentional for the evolution of our kids’ social growth,” says Steele. “Living in Montauk and being close to New York City inspires their artistic, cultural and competitive sides. It’s like preparing them for the real world.”

At first, the Steeles didn’t tell the kids they were putting down roots in Montauk, but as it turned out, the girls didn’t need much convincing. “We told them we were going to be here for a month and they were going to go to school here,” says Steele. “But then after a week they said, ‘We don’t want to go back to Byron Bay, we want to stay here.’ The Montauk kids were really welcoming, so they felt like they had a great group of friends right away.”

Their dad has been creatively invigorated by the move as well. “I would love to document all the interesting characters out on the East End,” he says. “There are some really inspiring people—you can feel the creative energy out there.”

Right now, Steele is busy putting the finishing touches on his next film, Proximity, due out in March 2017; he’s turning the opening into a multimedia event. In addition to the surf film, he says, “we’re going to have an art gallery installation in New York, where you can see photos, videos, virtual realities, surfboards that were used and other elements from the film.” He also continues to work on advertising projects for companies like Corona, Samsung and Hewlett Packard.

When he’s not working, Steele focuses on family life and settling into his new community. “The nice thing about working in surf films so long is becoming part of the surf tribe,” he says. “Anywhere I go where there are surfers, I get welcomed pretty easily.” Meanwhile, his daughters have fallen in love with surfing in Montauk. “They knew how to surf from living other places, but now that all their friends from school are surfers too, they’re surfing all the time.” And living on the East End has even given their dad a new perspective on the sport. The biggest eye-opener he’s had since moving to Montauk? Says Steele: “Surfing in the snow.” –JB

Film & TV Personalities in the Hamptons

TV GOLD When not dreaming up the next hit series, "Scrubs" creator Bill Lawrence rejuvenates in East Hampton.

On his first day back on the West Coast after several weeks in the Hamptons with his wife, actress Christa Miller, their three children, and a large cast of family and friends, TV writer, director and producer Bill Lawrence is already aware of the canyon between the two locales—and it’s a gulf far larger than the sheer number of miles between the country’s left and right coasts. “Time slows down out east,” explains the creator of crackling hit shows such as Scrubs, Spin City and Cougar Town. “I say to my kids, ‘Your day is yours,’ and instead of zoning out with their gadgets, they walk down to the beach together and come back with shells. There’s a nostalgia there.”

Nostalgia is the order of the day for Lawrence, a self-proclaimed “summer-camp kid” from Connecticut, who finds in the Hamptons an escape from the pressures of studios, meetings and the “snowball” of production. The family spends six weeks each summer in Sagaponack, Montauk and East Hampton. “Grandma is in Sagaponack,” says Lawrence, indicating that this is the family’s Hamptons HQ.

It is on the East End that Lawrence can write, noodle, muse—and stare into what is arguably one of the most stunning middle distances in the land. “It’s what every writer wants,” says Lawrence, who is currently wrapping an outline for an FX series based on a novel by Carl Hiaasen. “The light just before and after sunset in the Hamptons is crazy, and looks unlike anything else,” he says. But there’s also how the light feels. In that light, Lawrence and friends fulfill a wish of dreamers on both coasts: ease. Here, Lawrence is no longer the gimlet-eyed comedy writer. “There is something very romantic about being part of a bunch of people who have no dinner plans,” he says, just a bit wistfully. “We’ll say, ‘Hey, you want go to the little roadside stand and get some corn and watermelon?’ As long as you have gallons of rosé on hand, you’re OK.” –AP

Film & TV Personalities in the Hamptons

POWER PLAYER Judith Giuliani

Meet four fierce advocates of art helping to steer the 24th annual Hamptons International Film festival, which descends on the east end Oct. 6 to 10. –AP

The Champion
Though the Hamptons may seem to exist solely during the part of the year made for white shoes, Judith Giuliani, whose history in Southampton goes back to her college days, possesses a local’s keen feel for the shift of seasons. “I love fall and I love movies,” says the three-year HIFF board member, exuberant supporter of the arts and wife of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. “Fall is a magical time out here, and when we come indoors to watch new talent, it’s something of a reprieve from the usual summer schedule of golf, swimming, more golf and more swimming in the ocean.” Here, Giuliani offers a neat assessment of the dichotomy long posed by the Hamptons, but made even more acute as the festival’s worldwide prominence expands. The yin and yang of the region swings between extremes: seasonal versus year-round; sporty versus introspective; cozily small-town versus brilliantly global and inclusive.

That sense of teamwork is always present for Giuliani and the board. Complementing the formidably talented writers, directors and actors that the festival attracts each October is a growing generation of mentored artists. “Our young writers are particularly dear to my heart,” says Giuliani. “I cherish the idea that our board and its mission encourage their growth and creativity.” Giuliani brings that same dedication to building the audience too, and events organized by this ace fundraiser, known for championing the work of the Boys & Girls Club of Palm Beach County and Women’s Heart Advantage, are aimed at furthering the goal of bringing in more people from across the East End. Recently, Giuliani and the other energetic Judith on the board, Judy Licht, threw a joint luncheon to serve this very purpose. In the end, according to Giuliani, the movies take us away from ourselves while creating the sense that we’re fundamentally alike. As she sees it, “Movies transcend all people, and when the lights go down, we are players in someone else’s theater.”

Madam Secretary
“I’m the secretary, but I take lousy notes,” Judy Licht says with a laugh when asked about her role on the board of the HIFF, of which she has been a member for 15 years. Maybe so, but Licht does possess formidable powers. “I have a real sense of public relations,” she says. “I love to throw parties.”

For more than 30 years, Licht, along with her husband, ad legend and restaurateur Jerry Della Femina, has been a vital member of the Hamptons community, and in that time has watched the HIFF grow from “a nice, sweet little film festival” into a year-round cultural presence on the East End. Like her fellow board members, Licht can pinpoint the moment when the thrill of the festival crystallized: “The night we screened Spotlight, which went on to win the Oscar for best picture, I thought, ‘This is what moviemaking is all about.’ I got goose bumps.”

Six years ago, Harvey Weinstein was a no-show. “Now, he comes,” says Licht. So does an increasingly diverse range of writers, directors, producers and seekers of new film fare. “Documentaries are one of the fastest-growing segments of the festival,” says Licht. “They’re agents for change and for thought. The sense of discovery never gets old."

Smooth Talker
For Alina Cho, her moment of clarity came in 2008, when she attended a festival screening in the Hamptons of an obscure, “small” movie named Slumdog Millionaire. A few months later, that small film went on to win the Academy Award for best bicture. “That,” says Cho, “is when I realized this was something I wanted to be involved with.” In 2013, the call to join forces with HIFF came when Cho, a veteran reporter and correspondent who is now an editor-at-large for Ballantine/Bantam Books, was asked to moderate a Q&A at Guild Hall with Oscar-winning costume designer Ann Roth. Unbeknownst to Roth—her costumes have appeared to iconic effect in such classic films as Midnight Cowboy, Silkwood, The Hours, The English Patient and, soon, the upcoming Girl on the Train—her long-time muse, Meryl Streep, was waiting backstage. “Ann’s a tough cookie,” says Cho, “but when Meryl surprised her onstage, Ann broke down in tears. It was incredibly moving.” Perhaps her favorite memory in her 20-year history with the festival, that night also yielded Cho an invitation to join the HIFF advisory board. “I do whatever I’m told,” Cho says with a laugh, which in this role often means recruiting talent, as she did with newest board member Jason Weinberg. “I texted Jason during a board meeting and he replied with an immediate yes.”

But connecting and cheerleading are just the beginning of what Cho brings to the cineaste’s seaside party. A Peabody-winning journalist, whose wide-ranging reporting for CNN, ABC, and CNBC has taken her from Paris Fashion Week to Pyongyang, North Korea, Cho offers what in the era of TED is a priceless modern skill: public speaking. “I raise my hand for it,” Cho says, “because that’s one way I can contribute. Don’t forget, though, that we have a tremendous asset in Alec Baldwin, who’s kind of famous.”

Back to the Beach
With only four weeks on the odometer, Jason Weinberg is the new kid on the board of the HIFF. But like other ardent film lovers who bring their passion and phone trees to the East End’s beloved autumn ritual, Weinberg has a long personal history with the festival and the Hamptons. “I’ve been an attendee and a friend of the festival for many years,” says Weinberg. Friend indeed. As a producer, Weinberg has shepherded films such as Lovelace, the Golden Globe-winning TV series Ray Donovan and Enlightened. Asked what a place on the board of the HIFF means to him, Weinberg is far less the successful public relations executive, talent manager and producer he is now, and more the boyish beachgoer he’s always been. “I’ve been coming out here my whole life,” he says. “I feel like a local.”

Raised in New York City and educated in Connecticut and London, Weinberg formed his own Manhattan PR firm in his 20s before moving on to Los Angeles and his second brainchild, Untitled Entertainment, whose client list includes names such as Matt Dillon, Sofía Vergara and Naomi Watts. But high-profile glitter isn’t what draws Weinberg to the HIFF. Instead, he prizes the festival’s laid-back vibe and the fresh air of mutual support. “No one’s worried about who’s better,” he says. “We’re more celebratory.” That sense of relaxed film fandom is carried like a breeze as the HIFF keeps what Weinberg calls the “over-marketed commercial interests” at bay, and the diverse, inclusive spirit of the local culture at the forefront. In the Hamptons, says Weinberg, “there’s a sense of nostalgia. Here, I’m in a town where I’ve spent time as a child and it intersects with what I do in life. There’s a feeling of déjà vu.”